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TRUDY RUBIN Old-school terror grips Beirut



Published: Fri, February 18, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The bomb that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri has sent aftershocks rippling around the region.

"This bomb was about something much bigger than Lebanon," says Iraq's savvy Deputy Prime Minister, Barham Salih. "It was a shot at the whole reform agenda in the Middle East."

This explosion blew the cover off the question that haunts the whole region: Will the ripplings of Arab political reform move forward peacefully, or will the region slide back toward the politics of the bomb?

Hariri was a larger-than-life Lebanese who began poor but made a fortune in construction in Saudi Arabia. He spearheaded the rebuilding of his country after a vicious 15-year civil war. But he quit last October, in protest over the dominant role that neighboring Syria plays in Lebanese politics.

Hariri was allied with opposition legislators who want Syria to withdraw the 14,000 troops it keeps in Lebanon. The Syrians ignored a U.N. Security Council resolution last year urging that foreign troops be withdrawn from Lebanon.

So it's no surprise that Lebanese opposition leaders insist that Syria did the deed. (The Syrians deny it.) Hariri might have led the opposition to victory in May elections.

The killing has all the hallmarks of past Syrian operations. A massive bomb -- attributed to Syria -- killed Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel in 1982. Two huge truck bombs -- attributed to Lebanese Shiite allies of Syria -- blew up hundreds of U.S. and French peacekeeping troops in 1983.

Monday's bomb was a throwback to the style of Arab politics of the 1970s and 1980s: change by murder and assassination. Syrian intelligence operatives still blanket Lebanon, and it is inconceivable that an operation of this kind could have been organized without their knowledge.

Clear warning

Even the site of the explosion, near the war-scarred St. Georges Hotel -- a symbol of the country's civil strife -- seemed aimed at sending a clear warning to the Lebanese political opposition: Don't mess with Syria, or push political reform too far, or we will push you back into the abyss. The message is aimed at America, too.

The Bush administration has other grievances with Syria. It helps Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is a powerful political force in Lebanon but has carried out terrorist operations. (No surprise: Hezbollah wants Syria to stay in Lebanon.)

And Syria shelters senior Baathist leaders who help keep the insurgency in Iraq at a boil.

So how to deal with Damascus? How to send a counter-message that Arab politics in this new century must operate by different means? The United States already has economic sanctions on Syria, and this week it recalled our ambassador.

What more can be done?

The best option is to mobilize widespread international pressure against those who want to play by the old rules.

The Bush administration has already joined with France -- yes, France -- to get the U.N. Security Council to call for a report into the circumstances of Hariri's death. The French have a long-standing interest in Lebanon.

This unlikely alliance has a better chance than America alone to rally Arab governments to press Syria to come clean, pull back, and let Lebanon hold free elections. Hariri's death should frighten other Arab leaders, too.

Last month in Baghdad, senior Iraqi leaders told me they wanted to lean on Syria by bringing to the Security Council a list of Syrian transgressions against Iraq. Hariri's death has given them a better chance to make their case.

Whoever killed Rafik al-Hariri has laid bare the stark option that faces the Middle East -- the politics of plastique or of the ballot. Now is the moment to force Syria to choose.

X Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.




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